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Big switch or small beer?

Microscope contributor

by Chris Mellor

Preparing for storage Armageddon? Nicholas Carr thinks you should be, because computing-as-we-know-it is in the process of vanishing.

A real big cheese in the area of computing, business and society, ex-Harvard Business Review editor Carr proposes that we are in the midst of a massive switch-over. He has written a book about it, called The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google.

He writes that IT is changing from a DIY activity to a utility model. Instead of having PCs on the desks and servers in the datacentre we’ll have PCs or thin clients getting access to computing facilities over the net. The worldwide web changes to the worldwide computer and storage products, well, they basically stop getting bought.

We will not run our own applications; we’ll run a service provider’s applications on a service provider’s computers using data stored on the service provider’s storage boxes, and all accessed over pervasive web links.

He writes: "Our long-standing idea of a computer is obsolete. While most of us continue to depend on personal computers both at home and in the office, we’re using them in a very different way than we used to. Instead of relying on data and software that reside inside our computers, inscribed on our private hard drives, we increasingly tap into data and software that stream through the public internet. Our PCs are turning into terminals that draw most of their power and usefulness not from what’s inside them, but from the network they’re hooked up to and, in particular, from the other computers hooked up to that network."

He cites Google and salesforce.com and foresees utility computing triumphant, much as a National Grid of electricity replaced all the original generators people used to have: "In the years ahead, more and more of the information-processing tasks that we rely on, at home and at work, will be handled by big datacentres located out on the internet. The nature and economics of computing will change as dramatically as the nature and economics of mechanical power changed with the rise of electric utilities in the early years of the last century."

We make a living from businesses and public sector organisations buying storage hardware, software and services. Suppose Carr is right and they begin to buy less and less storage products and services, ultimately buying very little. Storage Armageddon is a dramatic phrase but we’re discussing the end of individual business and public sector body storage buying activity. That’s serious.

Is Carr right? Is the web akin to electricity supply?

Perhaps it’s not. It’s more complicated than that. When a business stores its data on an Amazon storage service and uses salesforce.com and Google, it’s doing two things. It is accessing computing power remotely but it is also depositing its data in someone else’s storage. That’s not like the electricity supply. It’s more like banking with data bits going into a vault like money in a bank vault.

Why would a business, any business, entrust its crown jewels, its data – customer records, manufacturing data, financial records and so on, all in its own format – to a third party? I can understand online backup, but there is a way back from that. But put your real live data in someone else’s vault and you no longer own it. Give up your own storage arrays and there’s no way back. You become a virtual enterprise.

Most enterprises’ data is generated by their own applications. Access to it is beyond critical. Would you generate that data and send it to live on Amazon’s storage arrays without ever storing any yourself? Would you trust Amazon or one of its resellers to provide that service to you?

Just think. If that data gets lost, your business is dead.

Carr says hundreds of thousands of people are storing their photos on Flickr and that’s the future. Not for me it isn’t. I can understand sharing them via Flickr. But why would I want to rent space on Flickr forever when I can store the pictures for free on storage I fully own? It’s cheaper and the picture data is in my possession, not someone else’s. It’s more secure, it costs less to store and I’m not dependent on third-party network suppliers to get at it.

Somehow I can’t believe storage is going to vanish into the cloud, into a walled set of gardens owned by Google, Amazon, Microsoft and the like.

Let’s think transport. There are utilities: train companies; airlines; logistics companies; and bus companies. But the vast majority of us own cars. We know that utility transport is full of risks, full of exposure to cost rises and time delays. So we play safe and hedge our bets. We use utility-style transport where it makes sense but don’t burn our independent travel bridges. Once you have done that there is no going back. Utility supply of goods and services has huge risks and relying totally on utilities for things like data storage will be a huge, huge mistake.


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